Sunday, 27 March 2011

Petersburg lines

As I mentioned in my last post our latest battle concerned a scenario based on the Union assault on the Petersburg lines in the latter stages of the ACW. This is a general view of the table from the Confederate left. Just out of shot on the right is the 3rd Confederate brigade (Virginians) under General Charles. The works on the right of the picture are held by a regiment from Florida, also under the command of General Charles. The central redoubt has a small garrison, relying on its formidable defences and in the far distance are the works held by the Georgia Brigade commanded by General Byng.

A preliminary bombardment by the Union artillery had made some gaps in the abattis and General Lucas had decided to mask the central redoubt with some skirmishers supported by a regiment of sharpshooters and make his main efforts on the flanks.

The union infantry moved 'at the quick' across the open ground, suffering relatively light casualties from the confederate artillery, especially the heavy guns in the redoubt,which struggled to get the correct range. Action was joined first on the Union right as 69th New York attacked the 8th Virginia. A combination of canister and a devastating volley reduced the New Yorkers to a bloody wreck and they reeled back into the supporting regiments. To their left a Zouave regiment assaulted the works, but again a succession of volleys persuaded them to retire. Their place was taken by the 20th Maine who advanced bravely into the killing ground, reaching the works themselves, before the volleys of the 7th Virginia forced them to withdraw.

It was at this point that General Charles was killed. It is uncertain whether the deadly bullet was from friend or foe. Charles was a political general, owing his rank to friends within the government, rather to any military ability. Only a few months before he had led his brigade into an ambush, advancing against an apparently fleeing enemy aainst orders and the advice of his staff. Few of his men mourned his passing. That being said, the Richmond papers were full of his heroic death leading his men in repulsing the Union attack.

On the Union left the attack was faltering. The advance came under accurate fire quickly and the first brigade struggled to make any progress. The second brigade, led by General Holmes, spotted a gap in the defences made by the artillery and decided to take advantage of it.

This meant that he was attacking the redoubt, but fire from there was very light, the gunners' aim being distracted by the fire of the skirmishers. The going was bad, soft sand, but the Union infantry pushed on. To their left their comrades in the fourth (Lowe's) brigade were being butchered. Close range volleys from the Georgians behind the works caused heavy casualties as the gallant Union infantry struggled to cross the undamaged abattis. The 39th New York were destroyed as a fighting unit and the 79th New York broke when they were shelled by their own artillery.

The Confederate commander was becoming concerned with the attack on his centre. Fire from the battery in the redoubt had ceased altogether, the gunners being dead, injured or fleeing from the fire of the Union skirmishers. He had only two small regiments, one of which was a local militia unit of limited ability. As the action eased on his right he ordered General Byng to send reinforcements, as the ones he had summoned when it became clear an attack was imminent, had yet to arrive.

On the Confederate left, the death of General Charles had caused some confusion, but heavy casualties in the staffs of the attacking Unionists also resulted in a lack of control. The 8th Virginia came under fire from the 165th New York and lost several officers, reducing their effectiveness. The 3rd Delaware charged the confederate battery, overan it, and broke into the lines.

Now was the time to reinforce success, but the Union reserves were too far back. The gallant Delawares were now attacked by the 9th Virginia, led by Colonel Davis who had taken over from General Charles. A brief struggle was followed by the retreat of the Unionists, who reluctantly gave up the ground so dearly bought. Seeing the Unionists falling back the Florida regiment, which had been unengaged, ignored orders and surged from their defences, only to find that they could not advance due to the boggy ground to their front. In the open they were an easy target for the Union artillery and suffered needless casualties.

It was in the centre that the key struggle took place. Holmes brigade closed on the Confederate defences and exchanged volleys with the defenders. Too few to man the whole line of works, the Confederates were outflanked by the advancing enemy. The militia were faced by the skirmishers who were feeling for a weak spot to exploit. General Anderson, the Confederate commander had given up on receiving the reinforcements from headquarters, his only hope now was that Byng's Georgians would arrive in time. This they did, forming line to face off the Union troops hoping to exploit their entry into the redoubt. Although he had achieved his objective Holmes could see that the other brigades could not support him and so reluctantly he ordered the retreat, angry that success had been torn from his grasp.

As the firing died down the Confederate reinforcements came into view, breathless after their march.

Both sides would learn lessons from this bloody encounter.

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